Any ballet lover has seen a blurry film of the incomparable Anna Pavlova dancing "The Dying Swan," but there isn't much other footage out there to attest to the great ballerina's talent. That's all about to change. On February 6, the Library of Congress and Milestone Films are releasing the newly restored version of Lois Weber's 1916 film The Dumb Girl of Portici on DVD and Blu-ray, starring none other than Pavlova.
Weber was a pioneer filmmaker, directing an estimated 135 silent films over the course of her life. She died in 1939 at age 60. Though women couldn't yet vote, they thrived in the movie industry. And, as New York Times critic Manohla Dargis puts it, "Weber thrived above all others... yet, like most female directors of that era, she faded into obscurity." The Dumb Girl of Portici was one of Universal's most expensive films to date, featuring an enormous cast and ambitious sets. Weber adapted the film from Daniel Auber's 1829 opera La Muette de Portici, which Pavlova had starred in on stage with the Boston Opera Company. The opera tells the story of Fenella, a mute (dumb was a contemporary synonym) fisher-girl living during the Spanish occupation of Naples in the mid-17th century, who is seduced and abandoned by a Spanish nobleman.